Novecento, Trafalgar Studios, London

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The Independent Culture

The Flying Dutchman is famously doomed to sail the oceans forever, but at least he gets to go ashore every seven years to try and find a wife who will lift the curse. Novecento, the (fictional) subject of Alessandro Baricco's stirring dramatic monologue, is an even weirder phenomenon. From being found abandoned in a cardboard box in 1900 in the First Class ballroom to his death just after the Second World War, he never once ventures off the Virginia, the Atlantic cruise liner on which he becomes the most the phenomenal jazz pianist of all time.

At first, his protector keeps him from terra firma because the port authorities might take him way. But then this strange, ocean-roving permanent exile from normal life becomes Novecento's self-imposed fate. Suffering from a kind of existential agoraphobia, he can't face the endlessly multiform real world. He needs the security and the challenge of limitation: the fixed keys of the piano on which he can weave infinite variations.

Director Róisí* McBrinn has coaxed a terrific performance from Mark Bonnar who plays Tim Tooney, the trumpeter friend who tells Novecento's ultimately tragic story. Now a scruffy has-been, Bonnar's Tim is galvanised to a witty, wise-cracking verve by his memories of the mysterious prodigy. He has the knack of seeming to be able to suspend time, as he recalls, say, the one occasion that Novecento tried to disembark, or of being simultaneously rapt and irreverent as when he recounts the musical duel in which his friend got the better of the self-proclaimed "inventor of jazz", Jelly Roll Morton.

The monologue eventually becomes far too explanatory, but McBrinn's imaginatively conceived production highlights the haunting essence of the story with the engine room set of swinging chains and the spectral washes of distant music. It's worth climbing aboard.

To 20 November (0870 060 6632)

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